In May 2015, Takata Corp., a Japanese company that makes airbags, announced that roughly 33.8 million vehicles might contain defective airbags that could explode with excessive force. Specifically, they can shoot metal shrapnel at passengers and cause serious injury or even death, sometimes when no airbag-deploying event has occurred. Takata also agreed to a consent order with the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) regarding its obligations in the recall process, which happens to be the largest auto recall in history. It additionally released four defect information reports regarding the details of the affected devices. On Sept. 1, 2015, the NHTSA estimate changed to 23.4 million.
Dozens of lawsuits against Takata have been filed in Florida federal courts. On February 12, 2016, a hearing in the case of injured Florida resident Patricia Mincey indicated that Takata’s own engineers discarded evidence that may have shown the defective airbag propellant as long as 16 years ago. The propellant includes a compound called ammonium nitrate, which was introduced into Takata models as early as 2000 and triggered failures during internal testing. Mincey was paralyzed when her Takata-manufactured airbag deployed defectively during a 2014 accident.
According to the testimony, Takata altered its test data to hide the failures from Honda, its biggest customer. Moreover, a senior Takata executive ordered some of the evidence to be disposed of. A former Takata airbag engineer named Thomas Sheridan was questioned earlier this year as a part of Mincey’s suit. Mincey’s lawyers disclosed Sheridan’s testimony at the February 12 hearing. Sheridan indicated that he had tried to examine airbag parts that had failed several performance tests in a 2002 report to Honda. But he learned the parts had been cast aside at the direction of the Takata vice president of engineering, Al Bernat. Bernat was also linked to 2004 airbag tests in which former Takata engineers have said that evidence was disposed of. Takata refused to allow Mr. Bernat, who still works for the company, to be interviewed. A company spokesperson indicated that Takata believes Mincey’s lawsuit lacks merit.
According to court documents, Takata did not report the failures to Honda but instead manipulated the data to conceal results indicating that the propeller could violently combust, causing its casing to rupture. On numerous occasions, “pressure vessel failures” were reported to Honda as normal airbag deployments.
When Mr. Sheridan was asked in court whether he thought it was surprising that Takata airbags had since been connected to numerous deaths and injuries, he responded that he wasn’t surprised. Takata’s airbags have since been linked to 10 deaths – including one last month – and more than 100 injuries. Takata has sold up to 54 million inflaters in the United States. So far, automakers have recalled close to 28 million Takata inflaters across the country.
Safety expert Allan Kam, who worked for the NHTSA for 25 years, called the data manipulation and discarding of evidence “unbelievable,” “deplorable behavior.” He said it would be deplorable even if they hid evidence related to a cosmetic feature, but “people could get maimed and killed by this defect.”
The NHTSA fined Takata $70 million on November 3 for failing to promptly disclose its airbag defects and for manipulating data. The penalty could increase by $130 million if Takata does not honor its agreement with the NHTSA. Also on November 3, Honda informed Takata it would no longer be using their airbags.
Ted Leopold, Mincey’s lawyer, introduced evidence of Takata engineers in both Japan and the U.S. manipulating data over a long period of time. In a 2007 report, five of nine data points that appeared in the original data were not included in the version shown to Honda. A Honda spokesperson testified that he was aware of evidence suggesting that Takata misrepresented and manipulated test data.
The purpose of Mincey’s hearing was meant not to weigh facts but instead to decide the admissibility of evidence as a part of Mincey’s demand for damages. Takata’s lawyers argued that despite the evidence presented, nothing was clearly linked to Mincey’s case. Tests on the inflater model in Mincey’s 2001 Honda so far have shown no signs of rupturing, according to Takata lawyers. Takata lawyers also argued that the company has actively tried to address safety problems as they arose.
Judge James H. Daniel of Duval County Court agreed with Takata that there was not sufficient evidence linking Takata’s actions directly to Mincey’s accident. But he also indicated that he would consider additional evidence, which Leopold said he could provide.
If you were injured by a defective product in South Florida, you should contact a caring lawyer who can help you safeguard your rights. To schedule a free consultation with a hardworking and committed Miami personal injury attorney, contact Friedman, Rodman & Frank, P.A. through our website or give us a call today at (305) 448-8585.
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